Santa Claus was ho-ho-hoing outside of Academy Medical PC in Inwood on Monday, Dec. 18, as he and retired Yankee closer Mariano Rivera handed out gifts and treats to young children of the neighborhood.
“I would like maybe slime or a Barbie,” said 8-year-old Gianni who lives in the neighborhood and was brought to the toy drive by her grandmother Maria Salvatierra. Gianni walked away happily with a troll doll and added that her favorite part of the holidays is “spending it with my family.”
There were 1,500 toys distributed in gift bags along with other goodies and toys ranged from dolls to board games to basketballs. But it wasn’t just children in attendance on the windy Monday afternoon.
“I heard it on 1010 WINS,” said Elliot Rullon who stood in line with his friend William Rojas, both with baseballs in hand and eager to get an autograph from the Rivera, the renowed Hall-of-Famer who helped the Yankees win five world championships in his career. Rivera signed autographs and took pictures asked of him with a warm smile.
Salvatierra, who admitted to Mariano Rivera being her favorite Yankee, learned about the giveaway as a patient of Academy Medical PC — one of the dozens of locations affiliated with SOMOS, a community care group founded in 2015 by Dr. Ramon Tallaj, M.D. The physician-led network has 2,500 healthcare providers and serves more than 1 million Medicaid and Medicare recipients — especially in New York City’s underserved, Spanish-speaking communities.
“The reality is that if you don’t do this, sometimes these kids won’t get anything [for the holidays],” said Dr. Tallaj, who was also in attendance distributing gifts.
Dr. Tallaj has more than 20 years of experience working in underprivileged communities.
“When you work in the neighborhood as long as I have, you see the inequity,” he said.
A majority of the population of the Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods are Hispanic. According to the NYC Hispanic/Latinx Health Action Agenda 2021-2025, more than half of Latino-identifying New Yorkers earn an income below the federal poverty level, including 62% of Dominicans, the majority of Spanish speakers in those areas.
They also lead the health disparities in lack of access to health care, resulting in higher-than-average cases of high blood pressure and asthma.
“We’re always trying to the right thing and the right thing is being here for these children,” said Rivera. “Especially at this time.”
Rivera — who was the first MLB player to be unanimously voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019 — said he would be spending the holiday season with his family and indulging in bread and chocolate.
“His favorite,” Dr. Tallaj interjected with laughter.
The both were as jolly as Old Saint Nick himself and wished everyone a “Merry Christmas and a happy new year.”